Jakarta governor plans to fight on

Ahok, shown here in a 2014 file photo, says his rivals are capitalising on his being both Chinese and Christian but he still has the support of Muslims among the Jakarta voters.
Ahok, shown here in a 2014 file photo, says his rivals are capitalising on his being both Chinese and Christian but he still has the support of Muslims among the Jakarta voters.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Ahok carries on with re-election campaign despite blasphemy charges

Jakarta gubernatorial candidate Ahok has no plans to quit the race despite calls by Muslim hardliners for his head on a platter over accusations of blasphemy.

The Chinese-Christian, whose formal name is Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, is now facing criminal charges for insulting Islam, but maintained in an interview that he did not set out to do so.

But he added: "Whatever the police decide - that should be the best decision - and I will follow."

He was speaking to The Straits Times on Thursday at his campaign headquarters in the Menteng area of Jakarta, where more than 800 people had turned up to show their support for the governor, who is running for re-election.

This was more than double the 400 residents gathered there on Wednesday, the third day since the open house started on Monday.

He said nothing has changed for him despite the charges, and there is still "kerja", which means "work" in Bahasa Indonesia and is his campaign motto. It is also a nod to the reforms and urban renewal projects he has pledged to carry out if he is elected in February next year.

"In Banka Belitung, where I'm from, we live harmoniously among different faiths," he said. "Just look at the people who are with me in this room. They are all my friends and they are mostly Muslim."

The Indonesian police on Wednesday named Ahok as a suspect over comments he made to constituents in late September, telling them not to be misled by his opponents, who had cited the Quran when urging Muslims not to vote for him, a non-Muslim. He apologised days later, after a video of his comments was posted online.

But it was too late.

The police called him in for questioning after an outcry from some Muslim leaders and the Islamic Defenders' Front (FPI), a hard-line local group.

The issue came to a head when the FPI led a mass demonstration on Nov 4, which drew an estimated 100,000 protesters - a majority of whom was believed to have been ferried into the capital for the street march by Ahok's rivals.

Despite the case, Ahok has continued to campaign actively for the election. He and running mate Djarot Saiful Hidayat are up against the Gerindra Party pair of former education minister Anies Baswedan and businessman Sandiaga Uno, and the Democratic Party's Mr Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono - an ex-army major and son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - and veteran bureaucrat Sylviana Murni.

About 30 residents at the open house on Thursday raised municipal issues with Ahok in a "meet the people session". This used to be the norm at City Hall when he was governor, but he is not allowed to use the premises there now because he is officially on leave to campaign.

The blasphemy allegations, however, seem to have given Ahok's popularity a boost, said his campaign secretary, Mr Ace Hasan Syadzily. For starters, it has earned him more press coverage than his rivals, as some voters see him as a victim of injustice, he added.

From the size of Thursday's crowd at Rumah Lembang - a rented house being used as Ahok's campaign headquarters - many supporters seemed to have remained loyal despite the police investigations.

Indonesian artiste Koes Hendratmo told Ahok: "We appreciate what you do for Jakarta. We do not care that you are a suspect. We need a person with strong hands... otherwise, nothing would move forward."

Ahok insisted that his remarks were not meant as an insult to Islam and will not give in to calls to pull out of the election.

He believes many of the protesters on Nov 4 were non-Jakarta residents. "Jakartans are not stupid. If they want to (protest against me), they don't need to bring people from outside the capital because there are 10 million voters here. So if, say, 10 per cent of them were upset with me, that would be one million people against me," said Ahok.

He reiterated that his rivals are just capitalising on his being both Chinese and Christian. "They tried to build an opinion that Muslims are against me, but that is not true."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2016, with the headline 'Jakarta governor plans to fight on'. Print Edition | Subscribe